Monday, November 17, 2008

SPAG Specifics: Photopia and Rendition

SPAG #53 has just been published, and in it you will find my detailed analyses of Photopia and Rendition. Please enjoy them, and consider writing something for SPAG yourself! Reviews, analyses, essays - more or less anything that has to do with interactive fiction is appropriate.

Monday, October 13, 2008

[IF Competition] Snack Time!

I have already played 13 games in the IF Comp, but I've only written about 6 of them--so it's definitely time to crank out some more not-quite-reviews.

Lest the opportunity for small talk given to me by the necessity of filling this space with more or less meaningless sentences go to waste, I will now tell you that this competition will always be linked in my mind to the music of Meatloaf. I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show a week or so ago, and now I'm putting on Meatloaf songs whenever I start playing IF. My reviews will probably suffer.

Here we go, talking about Snack Time! by Hardy the Bulldog & Renee Choba.

What is good?
  • This is a very polished effort. Not only is the interaction smooth and painless, the author has also anticipated all kinds of funny actions.
  • The game has its own voice, being told from the perspective of a puppy. This makes what would otherwise be a very standard puzzler much more distinctive.
  • The puzzle - for it really is just a single puzzle - is well-clued, not too hard but not ridiculously easy either. I'm not sure I would have found the ideal ending by myself, but the sub-ideal ending is within even my meager puzzle-solving reach.
What could be better?
  • Nothing, really. The game is more or less perfect.
  • Of course, that doesn't mean that is it great, greatness and perfection being two distinctly different (and perhaps mutually exclusive) attributes. What Snack Time! lacks is ambition; and it lacks it in copious amounts.
Post-competition release?

Perhaps, if any bugs are found. And by the way, can I say that this game would lend itself well to being made free software? Implementing some additional funny things that the protagonist can do seems like something that many people might like to do.

My main hope is that the author(s) will tackle a bigger project next time. That could be something to watch out for.

Friday, October 10, 2008

[IF Competition] A Martian Odyssey

I have already played 11 games in the IF Comp, but I've only written about 5 of them--so it's definitely time to crank out some more not-quite-reviews.

Lest the opportunity for small talk given to me by the necessity of filling this space with more or less meaningless sentences go to waste, I will now tell you that this competition will always be linked in my mind to the music of Meatloaf. I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show a week or so ago, and now I'm putting on Meatloaf songs whenever I start playing IF. My reviews will probably suffer.

Here we go, talking about A Martian Odyssey by Horatio.

What is good?
  • Alien landscapes are good! Overwhelm me with daring feats of the imagination, and I'll forgive you many things.
  • Basing your work of IF on an existing story can be good as well. This territory hasn't been explored that well, and I welcome further exploration.
What could be better?
  • I said "overwhelm me with daring feats of the imagination", and that is exactly what I meant. You are taking me to Mars. You are presenting bizarre things. So the very least that you need is (a) interesting descriptions, and (b) deep implementation. Make sure that investigating Mars is as much fun as it could possibly be! This is something that the game doesn't get right at all. If you describe your locations like this:
    Mare Chronium, West (in the auxiliary rocket)
    Another gray plain.
    then you are not making me care about exploring the world. You are doing the exact opposite. Or take something like this:
    Thyle II (in the auxiliary rocket)
    Another orange desert. Twenty miles into it, you cross a canal.

    >x canal
    You can't see any such thing.
    You are taking all the fun out of the premise by not describing enough and not implementing enough. So that it my main advise: give us interesting description. Give us a deep implementation. Let us fiddle around with what we encounter in as many ways as you can think up. Then, you will have nailed the fun of exploring an alien landscape, and everything else will just be an added bonus.
  • Better testing is also sorely needed. Something like this just shouldn't happen:
    >sleep
    You aren't feeling especially drowsy.

    >z
    You spend the night sleeping under the Martian sky.
    This is a relatively mild form of a problem that crops up much more often: the player is supposed to magically know the command he needs to type in order to proceed. Getting through the final parts of the game is just impossible without the walkthrough. ("follow smoke" was an especially unobvious command, but there are many more.) We need more guidance, and we need a bigger range of actions to actually work.
  • The previous two points will, I think, be found in most reviews of this game. Exploration needs to be more fun, and it needs to be made easier and more intuitive. What I'm going to say next is probably more a matter of taste.
  • If you adapt a story to IF, please choose a good story. I started reading Weinbaum's original, and I gave it up after about 25%. It is dull, badly written and uninspiring; those faults will unfortunately also be present in the derivative work. Now many will disagree with me. Apparently, a 1970 poll among SF writers put this story as the second best SF story ever written. According to Asimov, "With this single story, Weinbaum was instantly recognized as the world's best living science fiction writer, and at once almost every writer in the field tried to imitate him."

    I don't understand these judgements. In 1920, fourteen years before Weinbaum published his story, David Lindsay published his A Voyage to Acrturus. The idea is similar: a guy goes to another planet in a rocket, wanders around, and sees all kinds of strange things. But whereas Weinbaum's story is (from what I've seen) badly written and inconsequential, Lindsay's book is brilliant, deep and thought-provoking. I think an adaption of Lindsay would have more chance of succeeding than an adaption of Weinbaum. (And didn't Asimov read Lindsay, and if so, why not?)
Post-competition release?

Well, yes, if the author wishes to invest the time needed to really flesh out the world. By doing that, I think it is possible to transform this game from boring to fun. But it certainly is going to be quite some work.

Monday, October 06, 2008

[IF Competition] Project Delta

This is a spoilery post about Project Delta by Emilian Kowalewski. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark. So:

What is good?
  • As far as there is a game, it seems relatively well implemented.
What could be better?
  • If you want to show off your new IF-authoring system, you can do two things. First possibility: you write a game in in that blows people away, or at least shows that one can create good, solid games with your system. Second possibility: you write about your authoring system, in the hope that knowledgable people will be impressed by the technical details. What you do not do is write something that barely qualifies as the introduction to a game, tack on a discussion of what you are going to implement in future versions of your development system, and then release it to a competition where it will be judged on its merits as a game. That is a bad idea. From now on, people will associate your system with this barely-a-game.
  • Please, please do not give us an executable. It takes a lot of trust for people to run an executable from someone they do not know. (And it seems that this time, our trust might have been misplaced?) Of course, programs that run in a virtual machine can be malicious too, but at least you'd have to find a security flaw in the VM first, which is much harder to do.
  • Please, please do not give us an executable. Executables only run on the OS for which they have been compiled. I am not happy when I have to reboot my computer in order to start up Windows, just to play your game; and I at least have Windows installed, whereas many others do not. (And no, Project Delta does not run under Wine.)
  • Talking about Windows, I seem to remember reading that this game was written in Free Pascal? That should compile to Linux as well, so why didn't you provide us with a *nix executable?
  • Talking about Windows some more, is there anything more ugly than the terminal that still comes with my Windows XP? (I hope they have improved it in Windows Vista, but I somehow doubt it.) A terminal is a great tool, but is obviously one that Microsoft doesn't want to spend five minutes of their time on. You can't even resize it. And it has the ugliest font since... MS-DOS? It is MS-DOS, isn't it?
Post-competition release?

Uhm, no. Make an authoring system first, and then a game of which you can be proud. There is no use sending some half-baked, incredibly small, proto-game into the world. It just doesn't do anyone any good.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

[IF Competition] Channel Surfing

This is a spoilery post about Channel Surfing by Mike Vollmer. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark. So:


What is good?

This game has a lot of ambition, and then some. It is a scathing criticism of television in general and stupid game shows in particular. It offers a cynical view on politics. And if that is not enough, it embeds this in a science fiction story about new technologies and a future dystopia in which we all become "hollow men". I like ambition.

What could be better?


  • Quite a lot, unfortunately. This game aims very high, but doesn't reach the heights it aims for. More about that later. But the game also fails to get the basics of good design in place: adequate implementation of objects, synonyms, and actions. That really is a shame. Let's see some examples.
    >x me
    As good-looking as ever.
    Changing the default responses to actions like "x me", "sing", and so on goes a long way to convince me that you have taken the time to polish your game.
    >kick tv
    >
    The attack action gives no output in this game. Removing the standard message and not putting anything in its place is not good.
    >sit
    What do you want to sit on?

    >chair
    That's not something you can sit down on.
    Try to think of actions that people will probably try with the objects you have implemented. Sitting on a chair is not such a strange idea; I'm not the only one who is going to try doing that.
    >push remote
    You feel nothing unexpected.

    >use it
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >surf channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >change channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >choose channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >x remote
    A television remote control. It appears to be brand new, but the plastic seems a bit cheap and flimsy.

    >pull remote
    Nothing obvious happens.

    >change channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >change channel to 16
    The light from the television grows brighter, and you squeeze your eyes shut.
    This is what we call a "guess the verb" problem. (I was only able to solve it by looking at the hints.) The game only accepts highly specific input. As a game designer, you should try to anticipate different commands your players might try and make sure that all of them work. (Getting the ice on the fire was even worse than changing the channel. There "put ice on fire" and "throw ice on fire" don't work, and you have to type "dump ice on fire"--a locution that I'm sure nobody will hit on without consulting the hints.)
    Also, please implement the nouns that you mention in your room. The world is sparse enough as it is; please implement the few things that you put into it. If there is turkey somewhere, let me "examine turkey", and "eat turkey", and so on.

  • The theme of the game is ambitious, as I've said. But the presentation doesn't work. There is, of course, a serious question about why people watch television programs that cause their brains to leak out of their ears. But that question is precisely not illuminated by having me play through television shows that are both extremely stupid and very badly produced. The shows within Channel Surfing would never be watched, so seeing them in action tells me nothing about why people watch TV. In order to succeed here, you (the author) would have to succeed at seducing me (the player) to actually want to play these shows, while at the same time (or at least at some point within the game) allowing me to look through them at the emptiness behind. This is a tough challenge, but it's one Channel Surfing doesn't even attempt to meet.
  • More or less the same thing can be said about the theme of politics and the power of large corporations over our lives and minds. These are important issues, that must be explored through art. So kudos for that. But, you cannot explore these issues by taking them to a completely black-and-white extreme and asking me to feel indignation at the stupidity of people who vote for this kind of (non-existent, fictional, made up by you and not true to life) politician, or the evil and greed of this kind of (non-existent, fictional, made up by you and not true to life) businessman. You make everything too extreme, and that is why it no longer convinces.
  • So in short, my advice is to tone down the sarcasm, the indignation, and so on. You need to get some realism into your world (and that includes painting it in shades of grey, or at the very least attempting to understand people who watch Big Brother and vote for George W. Bush instead of claiming that they are idiots whose existence can hardly be explained). Without realism, the confrontation with the issues cannot take place.
Post-competition release?

Certainly. I demand at the very least a version where all the basic, technical issues I have spoken of are solved. This game has obviously been a lot of work; so it should be worth it invest a couple of more hours to solve the "guess the verb" problems, implement the missing actions and the missing nouns, and so on.

It would be a massive amount of work to make everything more believable and really connect with the issues--but even that might be worth it. The game has potential. If you don't want to go that way, please keep my remarks in mind when you make your next game.

Friday, October 03, 2008

[IF Competition] Nerd Quest

This is a spoilery post about Nerd Quest by RagtimeNerd. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark.

What is good?
  • It's written in Java, which means it is cross-platform compatible. And indeed: it runs perfectly on my Linux installation. Even better: it runs within my terminal of choice!
What could be better?
  • The game. If you want to write your own IF engine, be my guest; but know that you compete against TADS and Inform. If your engine isn't at least nearly as good, people will dislike your game. This engine is not nearly as good; in fact, it is really bad. Hardly anything is understood. The output is ugly. And the game that showcases this engine seemed to be trivial and sparse.
Post-competition release?

No. This author should either spend a lot more time on writing his engine and writing a game to go with it, or (s)he should migrate to Inform or TADS or another existing system and then spend a lot more time on writing a game.

[IF Competition] Recess At Last

This is a spoilery post about Recess at Last by Gerald Aungst. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark.

What is good?
  • The implementation is clean, bug free, responsive. This makes the play experience smooth and pleasurable.
  • There are some good hints within the game, and I always had a clear goal.
What could be better?
  • What did the author want to accomplish with this game? The story is trivial; by itself, it cannot keep us interested. Other things that might pique our interest are mostly absent.
  • I suspect that the author wrote a game that taps into his own nostalgia, since it features people and locations based on those he knew as a child. But for us outsiders, such nostalgia is absent. The setting, the characters and the story are bland if they do not come pre-infused with meaning; consequently, the game is rather boring to play. I fear that this piece was a lot of fun to make, but that this fun doesn't translate well to others.
Post-competition release?

Maybe. My main complaint cannot be addressed through anything less than a complete revision, and I'm not sure that is a good idea. I would advise the author to take a more player-centric approach for his next game, and make the leading design question: What will keep the player interested in my game?

Such a question can have many answers (the unfolding of a gripping story, solving devious puzzles, having to make difficult choices, interacting with interesting NPCs, and so on); but it should have at least one clear answer that informs design at every step.

The author certainly has enough technical and writing competence to make a good game, so if he follows this advice, I eagerly await his next work.

[IF Competition] Afflicted

Let us talk about the games in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. Instead of proclaiming judgement over the games and giving them a mark for all to see, I am planning to write reactions in the form of constructive criticism and advice to the authors. Hopefully, that will be more useful. (Specific bugs will be emailed directly to the author.)

All these posts will contain spoilers - consider yourself warned.

(Emily Short gave me the idea of changing the settings of my blog so that it will only send a couple of sentences, rather than the whole spoilery post, to sites like Planet IF. So if you are wondering why it's changed: that's why.)

Without further ado, here are my comments on Afflicted by Doug Egan.


What is good?
  • Afflicted is an example of a kind of game that is slowly becoming the "standard", replacing the old puzzler. It is not quite puzzleless, not in the sense that Photopia and The Baron are puzzleless (i.e., written with the explicit goal of never having the player get stuck), but it doesn't really contain any puzzles either (it is also not written with the explicit goal of putting challenges in the way of the player). In addition, it is strong on story, and leads to several different endings based on what the player character does during the game, endings which cannot necessarily be ranked as better or worse. I like this overall concept.
  • What I found particularly effective was the juxtaposition of two kinds of horror: a pedestrian horror at the uncleanliness of the restaurant, and a more dramatic horror at severed limbs, vampires and gore. The underlying psychology is quite alike, and I thought the game was strengthened by its inclusion of lots of pedestrian horror.
  • The routine of checking out everything and noting all the filthy things was a nice way of getting me to explore the entire place with a sense of purpose. It solved the familiar problem of making it plausible that the PC would explore the haunted mansion.
  • There were a lot of endings, and they clearly followed from what you did in the final turns. It was interesting to explore the space of possibilities.
What could be better?
  • The presentation of information on the screen could be done a bit better. There are some locations, especially the first location in the restaurant, where you get a lot of information in seperate sentences with blank lines between them. This is ugly, and also unnecessary; most of the information could be put in the room description proper.
  • The story doesn't make a lot of sense. Why would a vampire grow weak when he has diabetes? Why doesn't Nikolai kill his opponent with the letter opener or some other weapon? (He is surely in the position to do so at will.) Why doesn't Nikolai stop me from entering? Why does he hide the body parts near the dance floor, instead of burning them and then draining the ashes through the plughole? What kind of health inspector am I, that I go on with my researches after I find a severed hand, and even after I lose my own hand?
  • The story could have used more depth. Perhaps Angela should have featured more prominently, to give the game more human interest? Or maybe we could have had some meditations on living a life of predation? Anything that would have raised this tale from mere horror to something with a meaning would have been welcome. After all, vampires offer many possibilities. Jeff Koke once wrote (in the introduction to the GURPS version of Vampire: The Masquerade):
    Vampires feed our morbid curiosity and trick us into thinking we are observing something alien, when we are truly watching ourselves. Vampires mirror the state of humanity. They are at once beautiful and hideous, vibrant and unliving, powerful and dependent. They are cursed to stare their own evil in the face every single day, despising their thirst for blood, begging for the freedom of death, until the sheer weight of their immortality forces them to rise above their darkness and reach a state of humanity that is more than we can possibly hope to achieve.
    That's just one interpretation of the theme, of course, but it serves to illustrate that there are many opportunities here for meaningful storytelling.

Post-competition release?

Certainly; the game is good enough that it deserves a new release with some of the bugs and cosmetic errors ironed out. However, I think that my main points of criticism cannot be addressed in this way: changing the story to make it both believable and compelling would mean rewriting most of the game. These points are perhaps better kept in mind for the author's next game.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Portal

Okay, I just played Portal, which has seen a bit of discussion in the IF world, so it might be interested to comment on it here. Also, this game has been hailed as something that can evoke great emotional responses through effective storytelling and characterisation.

This is going to be completely spoilery, so if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read on.

The game is certainly too short and too easy; there wasn't a single puzzle in it that had me stumped for longer than a few minutes. The final boss fight was exciting, but not terribly hard either. (F6 and F9 are your friends.) I hope that the advanced maps are more challenging; otherwise, those portals are a brilliant puzzle idea left woefully underexplored.

The player character is constantly pestered by a female voice that talks her through the tests, but reveals itself as unreliable in the first thirty seconds. The writing here lacks all subtlety. The voice tells you things like: "Your safety is ensured if you ***static***", which really is a cheap trick. Valve also decided to use 2001-style modulations of the voice's pitch, which suddenly drops from high to very low on several occasions. But in 2001 this happened once, in an emotionally gripping scene; in Portal, it happens all the time, and is just one of a hundred signs thrown at us that scream "Look out! The computer is insane! Don't trust it!"

The entire game consists of such shouts. You find a secret room were someone has written warnings on the wall in blood. All right, I can't trust the voice--I understood that already. Then, in case we missed it, we get treated to another twenty places where people have written warnings on the wall in blood. Identical warnings. This gets very tiresome, and destroys any emotional involvement with the story that might have been achieved if the designers had opted for a subtle disclosure of what was going on, rather than beating me over the head with the stick of obviousness.

Emotional involvement, then, there is none. One especially lauded scene in the game is where you have to sacrifice a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. This is supposed to be an emotional moment, which makes you feel guilty. It does not. The things I have to sacrifice is a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. I don't care about a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. (The emotionally manipulative voice and the emotionally manipulative designers at Valve don't succeed in actually manipulating my emotions, mostly, I guess, because their attempts are again so incredibly obvious.)

The final scene is okay. It doesn't have the impact of Hal's death in 2001: a Space Odyssey, it doesn't even come close, but it's not bad. It might actually have been good if I had cared about the AI, or about the player character, or if I had understood what the hell was going on, or if I had seen the AI in a sane state before I saw her mad. As it is, the song over the credits is more gripping than the game itself.

So, it is a nice puzzler, recommended if you want to spend a couple of hours solving puzzles. (Though Professor Fizzwizzle is more fun in that respect, and also more challenging.) But a game that can evoke great emotional responses through effective storytelling and characterisation? Not at all.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Deadborn from the Press

Emily Short points out a problem that is certainly not unique to interactive fiction, but which is more of a problem for us since we cannot afford to lose as many authors as (say) the community of novelists can. She writes:
There are lots of good games that don’t get reviewed nearly as much as they should, and authors have drifted away because the amount of response their work received was not enough to keep them interested. IFDB helps a bit, because it provides a low enough barrier to entry for review writing that more people seem to be interested in writing more reviews, and that’s terrific. But there are also still quite a few works that have not gotten the reception they probably deserved.
I think this is a serious problem, and it would be very good for our community if we could keep this from happening as often as it presumably does. (If we can, that would also lessen the grip that the IF Competition has on our community.)

So, as a very small step in that direction: here is today's question. Which recent IF games do you know of that did involve serious effort, but then fell deadborn from the press? If we can make a list, we can then start remedying this problem.

My candidate is Macrocosm, by Shaun W. Donaldson. From the website, it seems like a lot of work was involved, and yet I haven't heard anything about it. Problem for me is: it's a Windows executable, and it won't run under Wine.

What are your candidates?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Am I a Zinester?

In an article in The Escapist, Anna Anthropy talks about how the makers of big commercial video games can't take any artistic risks and are thus doomed to make more or less the same game forever; and how we are currently seeing the "rise of the video game zinesters", that is, single, non-professional people who are making video games and giving them away for free just because they do wish to take artistic risks and make themselves heard. Anna Anthropy has chosen me and my game The Baron as poster childs for this movement, which is of course very kind of her and much appreciated.

I doubt that it is an honour I really deserve. As Jason Dyer points out, it is hardly new that people use interactive fiction to produce very individual works that would never make the cut as commercial products. Indeed, I think it is accurate to say that of games like Photopia, Galatea and Shade had not existed, I would not have been intrigued by IF and I would never have written The Baron.

I also doubt that we are accurately described as "zinesters". I'm basing myself on the Wikipedia definition here, since I did not previously know this word, but it seems as if zinesters are people who publish their work in very small, often hand-made editions, for the perusal of a small group of individuals. This does not seem to me a useful term to apply to works that are distributed digitally through open-to-all server like the IF Archive. There is nothing inherent in our publishing methods that stops our works from being downloaded and read a million times.

But this criticism aside, I very much agree with Anna Anthropy's sentiments, and especially with the link she sees between making interesting, innovative, risky, artistic, relevant games and not having to earn money doing so. Not having to earn money: of course people could still actually make money out of their games, and that wouldn't hurt their artistic value. It's just that when you know you have to earn at least X with this game (or otherwise your company will go bankrupt, or you yourself will not be able to pay the rent) that art must be compromised and that it may seem a much better idea to make a game about shooting space aliens than about the moral options left to someone who recognises the monstrous within himself.

Still - more independent designers making games for money might not be such a bad thing either. A one-man commerical project can take more risks than a 200-man commercial project, even if it can take less risks than a one-man non-commercial project. And since commercial projects might be able to ensure better resources for quality control, and so on, they might actually produce very interesting and very good works. So I don't want to say that "non-commercial" is the only way to go; but it is certainly a way along which we can expect much interesting work being done. And we, as the IF community, are certainly moving along this way and benefitting from it.

Which leads me to my final point: the obsession with money as validation that seems to be pervasive in the gaming culture. I noticed this when I was involved in making indepent pen & paper RPGs at The Forge: it often seemed that people only started taking a game really serious once it was for sale, while freely distributed games were not taken quite as seriously. Some people even had an argument against selling games cheaply: "If you think it's good, show so in your price!" This baffled me, and still baffles me.

But it's no different among people who are interested in computer games. Read the reactions on the Escapist forum, and especially this one:

Games like The Baron just don't seem feasible to me. Games are an escape from reality. Something like that makes us deal with problems in the real world. We should do this, of course, but games like that aren't going to sell as well as drugged up space marines shooting dildos out of rocket launchers. It's a simple fact of right now. Maybe in the future, the small niche of cultured gamers (Not me, I love gore and blood and I want to kill sexy space aliens.) will gather and make a game that will reset the bar for video games. Until then, we'll just have to play our Halo and love it (We do, right?).
In what possible sense can The Baron not be feasible? It exists, which should make all questions of its feasibility totally moot, shouldn't it? Unless, that is, you believe that a game only really exists when it's earning people money, and that it exists more the more money it generates. But that's just bizarre. The Baron is no less real than Grand Theft Auto IV; it's no less feasible; it is out there and you can play it.

And its author doesn't care at all that it's not generating money for him. That too shouldn't be such a hard concept to grasp. My entire computer runs on software that people have made without expecting to get paid for it. Why would games be any different?

So let's drop once and for all the idea that a game is only real if people buy it; or that interactive fiction (say) will only have become a valid medium again when people are making money selling IF. That's just nonsense. Interactive fiction will be a valid medium when people are making great works in it, and whether these are published for a fee or distributed for free doesn't make a whit of difference.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Rethinking Combat

In Idols of War 0.1, I followed what could be called the "standard model" of text-RPG combat. That model is thus:

1. Pick a character.
2. Have that character take an action.
3. Calculate and apply the results of that action.
4. Pick the next character, and repeat.

However, I now think that this might not be the most satisfying form of combat for an interactive fiction. What seems more interesting, both from a gameplay perspective and from the perspective of generating prose, is this:

1. Pick the character with "initiative".
2. Have that character declare an action.
3. Have the other character(s) declare an action.
4. Calculate and apply the results of all these actions.
5. Repeat.

The basic scenario I am thinking of is one where you are attacked by the enemy, and then must make one of the following choices:
  • Dodge the attack, minimising the risk of being damaged but also minimising your chance of taking initiative.
  • Parry the attack, moderately decreasing the chance of being hit but also increasing the chance of winning initiative.
  • Counterattack, taking a big risk but also opening the possibility of both damaging the attacker and winning initiative.
It seems to me that this model would make fights more dynamical, would increase the feeling that you are actually interacting with an NPC rather than just optimising a number, and would allow for more interesting interactions with the environment and more interesting tactics. You definitely want to duck away when the trooper throws a fragmentation grenade, to kick the table when the guard rushes you, to cast Disrupt Spell the very moment that the necromancer intones the chant of Unholy Blasting, to dive into the water when the dragon breathes fire.

In such a system, "initiative" would be something that you want to have but can't easily get. Getting initiative is always a bit of a risk; alternately, some particularly good actions will have the negative side effect of giving initiative to your enemy. There are actions that can only be taken when you have initiative (attack, throw fragmentation grenade, cast summon imps) and actions that can only be taken when you do not have initiative (dodge, parry, counterattack).

The only thing that would be really complicated is fights with more than two combatants. But it will be worth it; think of how cool it would be to throw yourself between your team mate and her attacker so she can concentrate on casting that healing spell she badly needs.

Spag 52

The 52nd SPAG has just appeared, and it contains three articles written by me: reviews of Gun Mute and Hors Cat├ęgorie, and a long article about Emily Short's Metamorphoses and how it fits into her work as a whole. You can read SPAG here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Violence in my Games

A moment of insight: I think one of my obsessions in game design is to de-familiarise violence.

Most computer games involve violence, but it's almost never presented as something problematic. You kill, because killing is what you do in a computer game. Who cares about all those bandits you slay in Baldur's Gate? If reasons for violence are given at all, they just serve to hide te problem of violence even further. You fight the NOD, because they are evil, and surely you must fight those who are evil. You fight the GDI because you are evil, and when you're evil, you fight. No problem. Even in a more sensitive game like The Witcher, most of the killing is not made into a moral problem: you're just killing monsters, right? ("Monster" now has the moral value that was erstwhile carried by the word "brute".)

So what I have been trying to do is to take violence, put it in my games, and yet make it a problem. Nothing is more standard in a roleplaying game than having to kill a wild wolf when you travel through the forest; but when you attack the wolf in The Baron, you must leave her child to die of hunger. (Well, there are some other options, none of them pretty.) In the game as a whole, violence reveals itself as self-destruction.

In Fate, violence is an answer; but it is not therefore morally justified, and much is made of this. Also--all the problems that exist are the result of either past violence or intended violence.

In my roleplaying game Vampires, violence is the only way to survive. What is more: the only way to survive is by doing violence against defenceless women that actually disturbs your audience--the best wat yo secure your continued survival is to make the other players think "I don't want to play this game any more!" when they hear you describe what you do. In Vampires violence is so ugly and unredeemed that the game probably cannot be played. (Except in the way I described in my spoilery essay on the game.)

In my (not ready to play) roleplaying game Stalin's Story, one of the players is given the authority to arbitrarily command the other players, and he is put into a situation where doing fictional violence is necessary. Here, violence is problematic because you do it against the other players and there is not even the semblance of a fair contest.

In my best roleplaying game, Shades, violence is less foregrounded; but it is always there in the background. This game is about reflecting on past violence, about coming to terms with it, resolving it It wouldn't be much of a simplification to say that all the rules have a single aim: to make the social situation of play as free from violence as possible, while making the player think about how violence could enter their lives and how they can overcome it. The Baron and Vampires are about kicking people in the groin while they are sleeping; Shades is about reconciling people with their awakened state.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Useful Psychology

Can something like character attributes or psychological states be useful in interactive fiction? Last time, I argued that a certain implementation of this will not be useful, namely, an implementation whereby after some time you are only allowed to take actions that are like the actions you took earlier, and thus forbidden to do actions that are unlike those actions. But keeping track of what a player has done, and basing the responses of the game on that, can also be implemented in ways that are at least prima facie more interesting.

Affect actions, not commands

We don't want situations like this:
> attack john
No, you are not violent enough.
where whether we are allowed to attack John or not depends on whether we have behaved violently earlier. Even if I'm not a violent person (by nature, by inclination, by habit) I can still decide to attack John, and this kind of response rings false. But we should not forget that the interactive fiction author has to interpret the commands given to the game, and that she can base this interpretation on the character traits of the protagonist, rather than basing the list of allowed commands on these traits. What I'm getting at is this. Suppose the protagonist has been behaving violently earlier in the game:
> attack John.
You smash his nose and send him sprawling on the floor. "If you ever touch my girlfriend again, I'm gonna kill you!", you scream.
Suppose, however, that the protagonist has not been behaving violently earlier in the game.
> attack John
"Seriously, John, I thought you were my friend. But now I see that you are nothing but another lying, hypocritical ass who takes advantage of his fellows as soon as he thinks that they're not looking. Have you no shame at all, kissing my girlfriend in my fucking house? I don't ever want to see your face again, John. Now beat it."
What happens here is that the very same command is interpreted in different ways--as a command to do physical violence in the first case, as a command to do verbal violence in the second.

The possible advantage of this is that it allows for dynamic characterisation. The protagonist really takes on the character traits that the player puts into him during the course of play. This might be cool. I'm not sure whether it will be, but it might be; I would like to see it tried.

Now one could say--rightly--that it should be possible for someone who hasn't done physical violence before to start doing physical violence now, and that a game like this would artificially bar him from doing so. True. But--this kind of limitation is inherent in all interactive fiction all the time. It is a feature of the medium. You can always only take those actions that have been provided for you, and this does not feel artificial, precisely because it is the essence of IF. (It is the same way, say, that it doesn't feel artificial that people in opera's sing all the time.)

One potential problem with this approach is that all happens behind the scenes. The player will not notice it on a first play-through, unless you find a way to draw her attention to it. So you'd better make sure that you're okay with that, and that you want your game only to reveal its possibilities on subsequent playthroughs. (Hidden cause-effect structures are always tricky in IF; they tend to go unnoticed and not affect the player at all.)

Affect NPCs, not PCs

An interesting suggestion made by Jimmy Maher is to take the approach criticised and then apply it to NPCs. So basically, the NPCs would keep doing what you had learned them to do earlier. Jimmy suggests a child-rearing scenario, but there are other possible applications: training your combat team before you take them into the Afghanistan mountains, for instance.

There certainly is artistic potential here. What about this: there is an NPC around who looks up to you and has a tendency to copy your behaviour. This would make you a role model, and that lends an entire new dimension of morality to your actions. (You are the cynical policeman who has neither family nor friends, doesn't care about his own survival, and likes to take on the gangsters in a very dangerous shoot-first-ask-questions-later mode. Now you've got this young recruit in tow, who has a two-year old child and her whole life before her. Are you even willing to show her the effectiveness of "your" way when you know it might lead her to do the same thing and get killed?)

Things would get even more interesting if the NPCs can, at a certain point, decide to rebel against what you have taught them--now there is a game I want to see made.

Tracking how the protagonist is perceived

Another good idea, due to Aaron A. Reed, is to use character traits not to limit the behaviour of your character, but to track how the world views him. So if you have been raping and pillaging your way through the land, people will run away from you as soon as they see you and bar their doors. If you have been kind to people, others will confide in you.

This is, of course, simply one way of confronting you with the effects of your actions. As such, the author of a piece will have to make a careful assessment: is it better to implement an abstract system of character traits, or is it better to track the outcomes of specific events? Do you want people to fear you because you ahve taken violent actions, or because you have slain Ralph the Merry in a bar fight? I take it that the former option becomes more useful as the game becomes larger and more episodic, while the latter is more useful for games that are shorter and more coherent.

The difficulty of growth

Tom Hudson remarks that changing is difficult; there really is such a thing as an ingrained habit--and an author might want to reflect this. True--but how is this best done? I am not convinced that the original proposal (making certain actions unavailable) is the way to go. Emily Short has a system in Metamorphoses, if I read it right, whereby some actions become more difficult if you have shied away from that kind of solution earlier; she does this by having the game suggest that you might not want to do that, but allow you to do it anyway if you try again. If it were well-clued that you can do it if you really want (which is not always the case in Metamorphoses), this might work. It highlight for a moment the fact that it's an action you hesitate to perform.

However, Emily does point out that people just don't notice that which actions they are allowed to perform depends on what they've done before. I suspect that you need to ensure that player understand this; for why else are you implementing it? This might be done in a thematic way: for instance, if the protagonist has access to a performance-enhancing but very addictive drug, it makes perfect sense that there is a lot of hesitation when you try to do it for the first time, and no hesitation at all when you it for the tenth time.

Taradino C. suggests, and I like this suggestion, that the difficulty of growth can be shown without modelling it. How? Because when the protagonist falls into a habit, so does the player. That's a really interesting thought. If you fought your way past the first five guards, you'll probably attack the sixth one as well, without thinking about it. Games might be based around this concept.

(Indeed, these kinds of patterns of behaviour even persist beyond the games where they are learned. Here is a fragment of an actual review of The Baron:
[...] I didn’t know how else to approach the problems that came in front of me. For example, with the wolf, I just figured I had to kill it. Yet, the detail of everything was grueling and frightful. I did not enjoy it. I wish for the game just to have said, wolf killed, and to be able to move on with the story. The gargoyle was not so much trouble, however, I did not listen to his story, and as I sit here now I wonder if I would have heard some solution to speaking and negotiating with the Baron in order to get my daughter back. Yet, I thought I need to press on and keep going. Then, I met the baron and I thought it was my duty to kill him. [...]
A game where the player has to break out of her habits--now that's an interesting design aim.)

I am sure there are more possibilities, so let's discuss.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Comment on Psychology

Several times recently, I saw discussions of a certain way in which dynamic characterisation of IF protagonists can take place. The idea is this: the game keeps track of several variables that describe the psychology of the protagonist. Actions early in the game have an effect on those variables, such that, say, stealing a purse will decrease your trustworthiness but increase your ruthlessness, while solving a puzzle through violence will increase your "violent" variable. Then, later in the game, certain actions will be made available or unavailable to you based on the value of these variables. If you have been very violent throughout the game, then you are allowed to be (or are required to be) violent at the end. Thus, a personality is established and reinforced through play, which would purportedly bring us to new heights of characterisation.

I very much doubt that it would.

Let me quickly note the explanatory barrenness of the psychology that is presented here to us. Could there be a more unconvincing explanation of somebody's acting violent than the statement that he has often acted violent before? (Compare: "This stone falls because all previous stones have fallen as well." Explanation and prediction have been confused.) And the explanation hardly becomes better when we introduce the notion of a "character trait" called "violent" and say "This person is violent, and that is why he has acted violently in the past and will act violently now."

But worse, for its use in interactive fiction, than the explanatory barrenness of this psychology is its existential and therefore artistic barrenness.

We must deal with the consequences of our past actions, and therein lie possibilities for profound existential tragedy. ("Because I have been violent in the past, this girl has no father anymore. How do I cope with that?") We must even deal with the consequences of things we have not done but have been subjected to, and therein lie even more possibilities for profound existential tragedy. ("Because I was an orphan in the slums of Mexico City, I had to rely on violence to survive. Things got out of hand, and now I am on death row. How can the world cope with that, and how can I?") But there just are no moments in our lives where we must face the fact that we cannot take a certain action because we have created in ourselves the wrong character traits. "If only I had been more courageous earlier on in my life, I now would have the courage to join the Resistance--but alas!" That is not a possible fact that we have to face; that is simply bad faith (and I totally mean this in the Sartrean sense).

Quite in general, our possible actions are not constrained by our "character traits"; that would be to make ourselves into things rather than persons. An interactive fiction that constrains my possible actions by only allowing me to do things which are like the things I did earlier cannot but reinforce the myth that we are determined beings, and that we therefore do not have to try to change. Can we seriously believe that good characterisations in interactive fiction will be achieved by denying one of the most fundamental facts of what it means to be a person? I do not think so.

Let me end by saying that anything that can be used to reinforce a myth can also--by subtle reversals--be used to cast doubt on it. So there might be some subversive uses of the technique described here, and they might be worth experimenting with. But as for the general usefulness of character traits--I doubt whether anything good will come from it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

City of Secrets - Hints

PLEASE NOTE that this post is about Emily Short's 2003 interactive fiction game City of Secrets, NOT about Aidem Media's recent graphical adventure with the same title. I cannot help you with the latter. (But if you're stuck in that game and want to check out some interactive fiction instead, why not try the also animal-starring and family-friendly Lost Pig? Once the application loads, type 'help' and read "How to play Interactive Fiction". It's a lot of fun.)

I just finished Emily Short's City of Secrets, which is an impressive work. In fact, I am tempted to call it her best yet.

Strangely enough, nobody has made a walkthrough for the game, even though there are a couple of points where you can get stuck.There are some hints on various places on the web (newsgroup postings, fora), but there's no central resource. So as a help to future players, I've decided to write down some solutions to potential problems here. If you get stuck in some other place, feel free to leave a comment, and maybe I can help you out.

In order to avoid spoilers, I'll encrypt all solutions with ROT-13. To decrypt, just paste the text into a ROT-13 decrypter like this one. (Or do it by hand: it's just a 13 place rotation in the alphabet.)

I've explored the city, but I can't get through the walls of force that block my way to the west.

Lbh'yy arrq n fcrpvny cnff, juvpu lbh pna trg sebz gur zna va gur ubgry. Whfg tb gurer naq gnyx gb uvz.

I need to get past a gate, but I don't have the password.

Lbh pna svaq gur cnffjbeq va gur onpxebbz bs bar bs gur gurngref (whfg svqqyr nebhaq jvgu gur fghss lbh svaq gurer). Lbh pna bayl trg va gurer jvgu na vaivgngvba--gel ybbxvat sbe fghss va gur cnex.

I want to go past the gate, but I still have a bug in my wrist. How do I remove it?

Lbh xabj ubj ybat V gevrq gb trg gur fvyire xavirf sebz gur nagvdhr fryyre? Jung lbh ernyyl arrq vf gur enmbe sebz gur ubgry onguebbz, naq n cynpr jurer gurer'f ab pnzren--gur pnfgyr gbvyrg.

Okay, I've found the gnostic temple, but I can't figure out what to do there.


Svefg bs nyy, lbh'yy arrq gur frecrag evat. Lbh fubhyq unir unq n ivfvba nobhg gung, naq vs fb, tb qvt sbe vg va gur cynpr jurer lbh fnj vg ohevrq. (Vg'f orlbaq gur cnex.) Gura gbhpu gur balk juvyr lbh ner jrnevat gur evat.

Nygreangviryl, V guvax lbh pna whfg zbir fbzr fghss va gur xvgpura naq gnxr na nygreangr ebhgr.

I need to get arrested, but how do I do that?

Qvqa'g trg fghpx gurer zlfrys, ohg fnj fbzrbar nfxvat nobhg vg ba gur arg. Whfg tb onpx gb gur cbyvpr fgngvba naq xabpx ba gur qbbe.

How do I get the winning ending?

V fnj fbzrbar nfx guvf nf jryy. Onfrq ba jung V'ir frra, V guvax lbh trg gur orfg rqavat ol: phefvat gur Pelfgny orsber Fvzba vf qrnq; urnyvat Rinvar jura gung vf fhttrfgrq ol gur perngher; gura fgbccvat jura lbh srry vg'f abg tbvat gb jbex.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Idols of War / Inform ATTACK Public Alpha 0.1; or, "IF and Tactical Combat"

Posted this on the IF Newsgroups today. If you don't follow those, please take note.

Dear all,

As a pacing device and mini-game, Interactive Fiction has relied mostly on puzzles. However, tactical combat can work just as well a pacing device and mini-game in an interactive narrative--just think of all successful computer roleplaying games and pen & paper roleplaying games. It would be interesting to see whether it also works in the medium of interactive fiction.

There is some aversion to "random combat" in the interactive fiction community. Personally, I blame a number of really bad attempts at implementing combat, attempts which typically involved combat sequences where it was randomly determined whether the protagonist survived--no player input required, no skill required, no tactics possible. Perhaps there really is a tension between IF and tactical combat, but we won't know until we've tried a best-effort implementation.

I have been working on such an implementation, and I feel the time has come to get some feedback. I have therefore put a playable version of my quasi-game "Idols of War" online at
http://lilith.gotdns.org/~victor/temp/IdolsOfWar.gblorb . This is not the beta-version of a future game; rather, it is a technology preview of the underlying combat system. You can follow a tutorial, and you can then test your skills against a couple of monsters.

In some areas, little is implemented: apart from the tutorial, there are only about 20 rooms with monsters. In other areas, a lot is implemented: there are for instance not only 5 standard combat actions, but also 15 additional combat actions you can learn in the game; and the combat system itself is very rich. There is also a lot of in-game documentation.

The aim of the Idols of War / Inform ATTACK project is threefold:

  • Find out, by making a best-effort implementation, whether tactical combat is a viable pacing device / mini-game in Interactive Fiction. In other words, can this thing that has been used in highly successful interactive narratives like "Planescape: Torment", "The Witcher" and [insert name]'s memorable D&D campaign also function in IF?
  • Find out what the conditions are for successfully implementing tactical combat in Interactive Fiction. I am thinking of issues of presentation (Can you follow what is going on? What is the best way to present useful combat information in text?); issues of interaction (How many and what kind of commands does the player need to have access to?); issues of integration (How does tactical combat and its interface integrate with the rest of the IF?); and, finally, issues about what kind of subsystems must be present or absent to build up a fun and interesting tactical combat system.
  • Create a toolkit in a major interactive fiction language for authors who wish to implement tactical combat in their game. I'm not speaking of an "Extension", since the ideal here is much more of a lot of possible subsystems from which an author can pick and choose, and which he will then tweak and change until he has what he wants. Unlike normal extensions, which aim to solve a very specific problem, such a toolkit would allow authors to build up a unique tactical combat system without going through the very time-consuming process of building it up from scratch. The working name of this toolkit is "Inform ATTACK", which stands for "Inform Advanced Turn-based TActical Combat Kit." :)
As I said before, I think I am at the stage where input would be useful. So if you are interested in this topic, please download the 0.1 version of Idols of War and try it out. Play the tutorial, play the further combats, try out some different skills and tactics, and help me answer the questions I posed above.

Does this stuff work? Is it accessible? Is it clear? Is it fun? Is it tactical?

What works and what doesn't?

What needs to be added in order to make Idols of War a better framework for a game? What needs to be added in order to make Inform ATTACK useful to other authors? (Please note that the toolkit is not yet available, not even in alpha-form: it will take some serious revision of my code to have that. All special cases will have to be changed into general rules, and so on.)

Any help will be much appreciated!

Kind regards,
Victor


PS.

The biggest gap in the system right now is that I have not implemented AI. The monsters will just attack, attack, attack. Obviously, a whole dimension of tactics is negated that way, and this will certainly change in a future release.
Also note that I had to disable "UNDO" everywhere rather than just during fights because Jesse McGrew's "Conditional Undo" extension doesn't yet work with 5T18. This will also be fixed asap.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

[I7] Finding your Inform 7 / Simple Chat bug

I just spent a lot of time finding out where a certain bug in my Inform 7 program came from, and I'd thought I'd post it online so people who do the same thing wrong as I can more easily find a solution.

Here's the deal:

If you have an "Instead of doing anything except ..." rule in your code which is active at the beginning of play, and you are using the Simple Chat extension, the result will be that none of your conversation options ever show up in the game. Not even when the "Instead ..." rule is turned off by the time you start a conversation.

The reason for this is that Simple Chat initialises your conversations at the beginning of the game, using the "preparing" action. If you have implicitly disallowed that action, by not putting it in your "except" clause, this initialisation will fail, and no nodes will ever be visible.

The solution is to rewrite your rule as "Instead of doing anything except preparing, ...".

(But I am a bit worried now about using this kind of rule, since it doesn't just stop actions initiated by the player, but also who knows what hidden actions occuring in the background.)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

[IF] The Baron Revised

I have been spending but little time on interactive fiction--blame the fact that I only have a few more months to complete my PhD-thesis--but I do think it's time for a little update. I've got three projects running, and today, I'll be talking about my revision to The Baron.

The competition release, back in spring 2006, promised that a new version would be released soon. Well, I've finally started working on it, not least because The Baron has been the subject of some critical attention recently, including being used in a University level course on video games. Here is the probable feature list of this revised edition:

  • A complete rewrite of all the prose in the (English) game. That certainly was long overdue. As an example, here's what happens when you try to attack the wolves you hear in the distance as you start walking along the forest path. Old text:
    You would love to, but the wolves are still too far off.
    New text (beta):
    Yes--we define ourselves through action. But the wolves are still too far away, hidden between the trees, invisible to your merely human eyes. You will be ready when and if they come for you.
    That's a relatively radical rewrite; mostly I'm just improving the style a bit. Here's a location description from the forest. Old text:
    Here the path is narrow and winding, and hardly recognisable under the snow. Moonlight penetrates the dense foliage only sporadically. Eastwards lies the baron's castle; to the west, your own footprints lead back to the village.
    New text (beta):
    The path here is narrow and winding, and you have to move forward with care and attention, lest you wander into the forest and lose your way completely. Bleak puddles lie on the snow wherever the moon manages to penetrate the foliage. Going eastwards will bring you to the baron's castle; in the opposite direction, your footprints lead back to the safety of the village.
    And the prose is not just growing longer, either, though these two examples might give that impression. Anyway, I'll go over all the prose a couple of times, and then I'll try to get another whole round of proofreading done. I certainly hope that the result will be a marked improvement.
  • Some minor gameplay tweaks. For instance, a couple of people got stuck in the throne room, which should never happen. There are also some optional things I want to clue better: the dolls, for instance, since I don't think anyone ever got to listen to their (many) conversations.
  • Addition of new material in the menu: more walkthroughs, some information on the piece's subject (only visible after completion), some thoughts on the piece's design (as promised in the competition version).
If you know anything else that ought to change, do let me know.

Friday, March 07, 2008

[IF-RPG] Fast-paced Combat

Another design goal for a tactical combat system is that combat always keeps a certain pace. What you want to avoid are situations where both sides have better defence than attack, that is, situations where damage is done only rarely and in small quantities. Once you've got that, you've a protracted and boring combat.

To solve this design problem, I have introduced something called deadly combat. It works as follows:

  • There is a global variable called the deadly combat number. This is 0 at the beginning of each combat.
  • Every round that no damage is done, the deadly combat number increases by 1. (To a maximum of 5.)
  • All combatants get the deadly combat number as a bonus to both to-hit rolls and damage rolls. Thus, if nobody has been hit for 2 rounds, everybody gets a +2 to-hit bonus and deals 2 extra damage.
  • If damage is dealt, the deadly combat number is reduced by 2 at the end of the turn. (To a minimum of 0.)
As far as I can judge now, this works quite well; it injects a natural tension mechanic into the fights, since they become more and more dangerous the longer nothing happens. (And it leads to new tactics as well, since you can attempt to get the deadly combat modifier up before you attack.)

There is also a skill called "deadlier combat" which, when activated, doubles all deadly combat damage bonuses.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

[IF-RPG] Cost of Skills

The basic idea in combat is that the player has a couple of standard actions--attack, concentrate, defend, retreat, perhaps others--and a lot of other actions that are made available as he learns more skills. (Currently, there are skills like "Smashing Blow", "Anger", "Sacrifice", "Burning Hands", "Summon Imps", "Curse".) Using skills costs Zeal, and Zeal is regained by (a) winning difficult fights, and (b) doing other things that make the Gods of War happy.

But what we want is the following:
  • We want the player to be using skills often. It is boring if the player types "attack" 90% of the time, and is saving his skills for a few desperate situations.
  • We want the player to use all his skills, because that is more fun than just using the same skill again and again. Now all skills are unique tactical options; and if some options are better, or more generally useful, than others, the player will use these options more often. This means that each skills must be the best available tactical option in a fair number of situations.
Let each skill have an intrinsic cost of n Zeal. Let m be the number of times the skill has already been used in this specific encounter. Calculate the real cost of using the skill as follows: cost = n * (m - 1).

That is right, all skills are free the first time you use them during a fight. So you can do everything for free once; and for easier fights, this will be enough. If you need to use a skill more than once, the cost keeps increasing.

This will reward players who use all their skills; it will also reward players who use their skills in every encounter. I think this will lead to diverse tactics, where people weigh the pro's and con's of paying Zeal for re-using a particular skill or using another skill that is still free.

[IF-RPG] Design Diary

I'm working on a new Interactive Fiction project, which is going to be far larger than The Baron and Fate. It is, of course, going to be an ambitious literary project about violence, redemption and hope--but it is also going to feature RPG-style tactical combat. Why? Well, because tactical combat is fun, or at least can be fun if done right, and because the standard game-aspect of interactive fiction, puzzles, is just not my thing.

Okay. Now what I'm going to do is start a design blog, right here, because this thing is just too big for me to keep motivated unless I can show off what I'm doing to a couple of people now and then.

By the way, this is not just a game idea: the source code is already 45000+ words (bigger than Fate), and a working combat system is in place (though I'm sure it still requires substantial changes).

Oh, and it currently has no name. I used to call it Idols of War, but that was several iterations of the game idea ago, and it no longer fits the project. I've also thought about This Comedy's Inferno, but that's too self-conscious. So I'll just call it IF-RPG for now.